I’ve been gone from the Collective for a while now, but I’m back with an interview that I hope is worth the wait. I had the pleasure of encountering Michelle Latiolais’s writing when my friend lent me her short story collection Widow. It is one of the most beautiful and stunning collections I’ve ever read. Latiolais moves seamlessly from the mundane to the philosophical with the same ease as Alice Munro and other great short story writers. She doesn’t shy away from topics that make others blush. In fact, you’ll see for yourself below what an advocate she is for not shying away from anything in your writing. I thought I would be able to pull out one nugget of wisdom to feature at the top of the post, but honestly there is so much good advice here I couldn’t pick just one. Do yourself a favor if you are interested in writing about sex, womanhood, your body, or anything having to do with the human condition because all those things I just listed are a part of it, and read this interview.
Is writing about sex scary?
Holding forth always feels bogus to me, and that I’m bogus, and will be proven bogus in about one minute and forty five seconds, and holding forth on sex really raises the stakes on that feeling. I’m going to hold forth on sex, on writing sex, on writing about sex? Don’t be ridiculous, but I guess I’m about to be precisely that.
Or, I’m going to propose that we not carve out entire areas of human experience, profound human experience—the human experience that at some point has made all other human experience possible—and decide that’s different writing or more important writing, or less important writing. Why are we even using that word, sex, in this question? Writing anything, doing it well, digging deep for the experiences of character that matter and then struggling to render this into narrative—that’s terrifying all of the time and perhaps none of the time, too, because we’re working and so also just a bit away from experience. In it, sure, drowning, but also transforming this water into language at the same time. Okay, okay, I’m taking on water here, lungs are not so happy, but how’s that water going about doing what it’s doing? Am I drowning well enough.
But sex, well, I guess I’m confused on why this is not written or why for the most part it’s leaped over as though it didn’t really just go down. Or if the sexual is written, it’s so often not written particularly well. Or it’s coy or squeamish. This last may just be deeply American. A former graduate student once drew to my attention the difference between Playboy and Hustler and Penthouse. He made the point that most men he knew much preferred Hustler and Penthouse because the sex was still naughty or forbidden or transgressive or suggestive in that direction . . . and Playboy was all healthy and ain’t this just on a par with one’s nine-grain cereal.
So, maybe as a culture we somehow want that the sexual be scary to write, want you—no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum—to feel scared writing sex, feel scared and all naughty and within the forbidden. Maybe American culture still really likes to titter like schoolboys sharing a dirty magazine.
I guess I decline to titter.
Have you ever stopped and found you were self-censoring your writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think?
Probably if I say no, my nose is growing. In other words, I’m lying, but my censoriousness—which is pretty seriously in action most of the time—is not about sex but about having standards of writing in my head that are so high, so brilliant, I can’t see for the light sometimes. I love those standards, don’t get me wrong, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, and let me mention Henry James again, who in writing all of that restraint and self-restraint and repression might also be tacitly writing at least sexual tension if not sex itself. Who said that writing sex always had gonads in evidence?
But I should also say I don’t write to an audience. Holy shit, what would that be like, sitting on a stage at a desk with a computer under the glare of Kleig lamps with 450 people in the audience looking at me? How would anyone actually write in those conditions, and I don’t have those conditions in my head, either. I’m writing to capture something, to fathom something, to think, to feel, to smell, to touch. I’m writing within the cave of my mind very much alone. If I want way down the line to know if what I’ve written is an act of communication, something I very much believe the writing needs finally to be, then I have some brilliant readers around me who are very hard on me, and who will reflect back to me just how well I’ve made my piece of writing true to itself and also communicative.
Going out more broadly into the world and occasionally hearing what someone else thinks of something I’ve written—well now, THAT can be scary, and incredibly soothing, too.
What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sexuality or womanhood?
First off, don’t parse it out as though sex is over there and all other human experience is here, and somehow perfectly permissible—and thus easier—to write about. How the hell did anyone ever have any experience ever without sex putting them there in the first place. They wouldn’t be able to observe bunnies hopping down a country road with pink bows on their big white fluffy ears, let alone watch someone suck someone off through a glory hole in a men’s john in a train station in Oxnard, California, without a woman having sex somewhere to give them their consciousness. I’m not working to be crude here, I’m saying that women having sex are the origin of everything, every perception, and somehow we’re not supposed to write that, or we’re supposed to be afraid to write that, or we’re supposed to do it according to the standards of others? Really? I ask in a high squeaky girl voice. I’m not going to write a character—male or female—who has thoughts and feelings and perceptions deemed acceptable by the thought police. They can write their own characters, but I’ll write mine, and I’ll write my characters as true to themselves as I possibly can. And you know, there are usually men there, too, if a baby’s made, and I’m a big fan of that. Of course, there is one book in which that isn’t the case and that book has sold pretty well, and so there’s some lesson in that, but for the most part, there’s a man there—a man with a full working complement. I’m pretty sure that most characters aren’t Barbie and Ken down there.
What does sex do for a story?
Depends on the story; depends on the writer; depends on the craft. I don’t think sex in a piece of writing makes it or breaks it any more often than a regatta in a piece of writing makes it or breaks it. Now, we all like a wildly contested regatta in a story, don’t get me wrong, but it may not be what the story needs . . . or what the story is about, but I will say that in a prize-winning book of recent history in which two young people have their first date and then, um, afterward, I am a little stunned that two characters with seemingly intact central nervous systems have just . . . balled? made love? fornicated? had sex? fucked like bunnies? fucked like ducks?—an entirely different arena of simile and thus differently suggestive . . . you know? So, what was it? Am I prurient, not particularly, but did I just read several pages of drum roll, otherwise known as dating, an evening out together, getting to know each other, only to have it peter out—no pun intended—in afterward. Wow, had they drunk so much alcohol they were essentially not present?
Isn’t that experience of those two bodies coming together for the first time sexually, isn’t that story here in this particular novel? And if it isn’t, then why did we read several pages of the date, and them getting to know each other, and then the culminating intimacy of the evening isn’t there. That’s just understood? Hmm, I’m not sure I do actually just fill that in. How many times have you heard, “well, we were really good sexually, but we didn’t have a thing to say to each other.” Or the opposite. So, I’m wanting to take the word “afterward” away from American writers for a while. Or the sun coming up or the waves crashing or the sound of the shower.
Do you think men get away with more when writing about sex than women?
Perhaps I think quite the opposite, that men are more vetted on this issue than women, but I am surprised, I admit, that you have singled me out. But I have been singled out before as someone with “a lot of penises in her work.” I actually have little memory of any penises in my work, save one in something that is not published, and so what this means to me is that this is so much a part of the world I’m writing that I’m not really aware of this parade of sexual organs that I supposedly have present in my writing. But I once taught Steve Almond’s terrific story “How to Love a Republican,” and a student, who was a high school teacher, complained to the powers that be that I had taught material that made him uncomfortable. I was sort of stunned. THAT makes you uncomfortable, that story that actually writes into the gendering of the two major political parties in America—THAT makes you uncomfortable? But, yes, there are some terrific passages of writing of the female pudenda, if I remember correctly—it’s been some years since I read it—but Almond can really write the physical body with force. He makes a virtue of the little language we have in English for the physical body . . . which includes, last I looked, sexual organs. Chang Rae-Lee also always thrills me when he writes the physical body, and writes it so beautifully. I think there’s a passage in Native Speaker in which either a girlfriend or a young wife’s body is described and it’s just so beautifully done. Then again, Chang Rae-Lee is one of our finest writers.
Here’s what I think is happening in part with respect to writing sex. Workshops—instead of making better readers—have made little policemen of everyone, and the most brutish policemen out there are the sentiment police—God forbid there be anything sentimental or of sentiment in a piece of writing that is submitted to a workshop, and women are going to get this VERBOTEN much more than men, because of course we’re just by nature a big pool of uncontrolled sentiment all of the time. So, I think young women are often not going to risk workshop brandishments, and I don’t blame them. Particularly if there’s no facilitator saying SHUT THE FUCK UP to the bullies. I think this is how we get a lot of Afterward, and waves crashing, and the sun coming up
. . . and no one in their bodies before the sun comes up!
In Widow you write about both sexuality and death, possibly the two hardest subjects to write about well. Is it harder to write about one over the other? Are there different approaches for getting at each subject?
I hope I’ve answered this already, but I will say that some of the pieces in Widow were written before Paul died, well before. In fact, “Pink” is a love letter to him, really, and one that he read. Then of course some of the pieces were written after he died, and in those days, I had this strange aspect that I needed to write around, and that is anything that might be used by the lawyers to impeach me with respect to the lawsuit over Paul’s wrongful death. I was in a tremendous amount of pain, and physically, too, I was seriously impaired, but I was also really, really angry, and I still am. Anger is a very interesting fuel, if you will, and I’m not saying I recommend it, but I think to subdue it, or to ignore it, is to be very dishonest to yourself and perhaps even worse, to your writing. I refused to be dishonest to myself or my feelings, particularly in the extremity of having lost him to medical and pharmaceutical negligence. I needed desperately to write about the human being I had lost, and I needed to substantiate his loss against a world that would configure him and what happened to him as unfortunate side effect or a side effect that was “statistically insignificant” in studies of the drug. So, the stakes were high for me; I cared deeply. So, maybe we shouldn’t write about what we don’t care deeply about.